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A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson flies over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex on July 18, 2019.
A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson flies over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex on July 18, 2019. (James Richardson/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Two formations of Russian military aircraft featuring four bombers and two fighter jets flew unusually close to American airspace Wednesday morning but were intercepted by F-22 fighters off Alaska’s coast, U.S. military officials said.

The first formation intercepted by the U.S. Raptor stealth fighters flew within 20 nautical miles of Alaska’s shore, bringing the Russian aircraft within 8 nautical miles of sovereign U.S. airspace, U.S. Northern Command said in a statement. While Russian military aircraft, including bombers and fighters, routinely fly near American airspace, the incident Wednesday marked the closest that NORTHCOM officials have acknowledged Russian planes have flown to U.S. territory in recent years.

The first formation intercepted included two Tu-95 Bear bombers, two Su-35 Flanker fighter jets and an A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft, NORTHCOM said.

The second formation intercepted a short time later included two additional Bear bombers and another A-50, the statement said. Neither formation actually entered American airspace, officials said.

Like the Russians, the U.S military regularly flies aircraft near Russian airspace on a variety of operations.

The F-22s scrambled Wednesday were supported during the interceptions by KC-135 Stratotankers and an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, which are assigned to the homeland defense mission under the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S.-Canadian operation that defends the airspace of both countries. The command is led by the U.S. NORTHCOM commander, Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy.

The interceptions showed the U.S. is prepared to defend its territory, O’Shaughnessy said in a statement. The commander previously said he expected Russian aircraft to test American air defenses as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Flying air patrols protect the approaches to our nations and send a clear message we continue executing our homeland defense missions with the same capability and capacity we always bring to the fight,” O’Shaughnessy said Wednesday in the statement.

NORTHCOM last reported intercepting Russian aircraft off Alaska’s coast on May 20. That incident similarly saw four Bear Bombers and two Flanker fighter jets enter the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone, an area of almost entirely international airspace that stretches 200 miles of Alaska’s coast. The U.S. expects aircraft entering that zone to identify themselves in the interest of national security. Military officials did not say precisely how close Russian aircraft came to Alaska’s coast in that incident last month.

Russian military aircraft were intercepted by U.S. fighter jets off Alaska’s coast in incidents in March and April, as well, according to NORTHCOM. Aircraft flew within about 50 miles of the Alaskan coastline in both of those incidents. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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